Last year, October 9 to be precise, the Lagos State Government announced its intention to demolish ‘shanties’ along waterfronts across the state, giving the residents of such slums seven days to vacate the areas.
That threat of forceful eviction by the government which, however, did not name specific communities or provide any statutory basis for the threatened demolition, witnessed the destruction and displacement of thousands of inhabitants of Otodo Gbame Community (an ancestral Egun fishing settlement in Lekki).
As early as 4:00am on April 9, men of the Lagos State Task Force and the police reportedly on the orders of governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode and the state’s commissioner for environment stormed Otodo Gbame, a riverine community, setting houses on fire as residents scampered for safety.
The early morning destruction according to residents of the settlement saw armed policemen firing bullets and tear gas indiscriminately, forcing them onto canoes on the water for safety as their houses were levelled to the ground.
Eyewitnesses said at least 50 to 60 officers of the Lagos State Governor’s Monitoring Team and 10 police vehicles invaded the community leaving at least one person dead, another wounded in the stomach and more than 4,700 people homeless.
The forceful eviction and the destruction of Otodo Gbame according to the Lagos State Government was for environmental, health and security reasons. It said it believes militants were using the community as a hideout.
The move by LASG was however condemned by rights group who saw the development as a ‘land grab’ especially with the fact that no alternative settlement had yet been provided for the scores of evicted families who have now been displaced from the waterfront community.
The Lagos State Government also received knocks from critics who were of the opinion that each time the government evicted the poor from their area of residence they made up excuses of forestalling environmental hazards but in turn gave the land to the rich and wealthy.
‘We were attacked suddenly, leaving us with no chance’
21-year-old Tina Edukpo, a resident of Otodo Gbame who witnessed the demolition, said she,like many other residents of the waterfront community were caught unawares when men of the Lagos State Governor’s Monitoring Team came calling.
“As early as 4:00 am on that fateful day, we heard loud shouts, “get up, get up, they are here again” by other community members who saw torch bearing armed policemen entering Otodo Gbame. At first, we couldn’t recognise them as cops until they came closer and that was when we saw that they were actually men of the Lagos State Police Command,” she said.
Tina said members of the community immediately made efforts to contact their lawyer to inform him about the situation of things especially with the fact that there was a court injunction halting the demolition of Otodo Gbame and other fishing settlements.
“Immediately, we contacted our lawyers because the case of Otodo Gbame is before a Lagos court which issued an injunction halting demolitions in communities such as ours. We also called a nearby police station and they told us that those who came that morning, which turned out to be men of the Lagos State Governor’s Monitoring Team, were there for protection.
“While still discussing on phone with our lawyer, he heard gunshot sounds from my background and he asked if that was a gun shot and we confirmed in the affirmative and it was there that he summed up that those who came calling that morning were not actually there for protection but otherwise.
“Before the call was ended, the cops had already started firing tear gas as residents in the community fled towards the waterfront to save their lives. They didn’t even allow residents to take their belongings before demolishing the shanty and it was even so bad that they were shooting at people who were running into water to seek refuge.
Tina also revealed that bystanders and other residents living around Otodo Gbame who had gathered to witness the destruction of the community which is one of many informal settlements along the waterfront of Lagos, were also not spared as the policemen fired bullets and tear gas at them indiscriminately.
“Even bystanders around Otodo Gbame community who witnessed the incident were not spared as they were wounded, while others fled the scene to escape being choked as the air was filled with tear gas fired by the policemen. There was a fatal incident involving two boys who went to rescue their mom, one was shot in the stomach and the other one who got hit in the neck died immediately,” she added.
‘They shot at me and killed my friend’
The forceful eviction and eventual destruction of Otodo Gbame left many who were affected, with a bitter pill to swallow, after losing their property to armed policemen who set their households on fire.
One of such victims who will not forget the episode in a hurry is 20-year-old Monday Idowuwho was shot in the stomach by a cop attached to the Lagos State Governor’s Monitoring Team which supervised the demolition of the waterfront community.
Monday who is now recovering from the bullet fired by the cop which unfortunately claimed the life of his friend, when the bullet pierced through his stomach and hit his pal in the neck, said he was trying to help his mom carry some of their property scattered after the destruction when he was shot.
“I was with a friend of mine on that fateful day in the heat of the destruction of OtodoGbame, when we both made to rescue my mother who was close to our already destroyed house. We both moved close to the waterfront to help my mother carry some of our property which were scattered on the ground as a result of the demolition,” he said.
“On getting there, I saw my mother trying to gather some of our belongings and as I made to join her, a cop attached to the Monitoring Team accosted me shouting at me to leave the area. The trigger-happy cop without any hesitation fired a point blank shot at me which pierced through my stomach and hit my friend who was behind me in the neck.
Monday who was distraught at the sight of his bleeding friend who was rushed in a canoe for help, said that he broke down when he learnt that his side-kick later died in the boat before getting to the hospital.
“I felt so sad when I heard about the death of my friend. I was also immediately rushed to the hospital and luckily I survived the gunshot wound. It has not been easy at all coping with the gun shot wound but thank God it is healing gradually now. I still feel pains, and I never expected the policeman to shoot at me the way he did. I am not a troublesome person and when incidents like that happen, I am usually not in sight but I had to rescue my mom at that moment considering the situation at hand”, he narrated.
The apprentice who was sharpening his skills as a barber before the incident said he can’t wait for the gunshot wound to heal so that he can go back and learn his trade.
“I would like to say a big thank you to God for saving my life, and Megan Chapman who footed and is still footing my hospital bills as we speak. She made sure that I didn’t feel the effect of the gunshot wound that much as I am sure my mother alone couldn’t have afforded the huge hospitals bills incurred when I was rushed to the hospital,” he said.
The mid-March demolition of the waterside community which according to local authorities was done to avoid environmentally injurious and unsanitary habitation still remains unpleasantly fresh in the minds of those affected, but for Monday, he is just happy to be alive.
‘We sacked Otodo Gbame in public interest’
Days after the demolition of Otodo Gbame, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, in a statement said the action by the state’s Ministry of Environment was to forestall an environmental disaster.
He added that the action was informed by the overriding public interest to ensure that the waterfront area is free from environmentally injurious and unsanitary habitation few months after it was consumed by fire and rendered uninhabitable.
Ayorinde denied that the government flouted any court judgment as alleged, insisting that the Lagos State Government owes a duty to the larger population of the state to ensure that public health and safety is maintained.
A short message sent to Mr. Ayorinde on what plans the state government has for displaced residents of Otodo Gbame who now live in inhuman conditions went without reply, as at the time of filing in this report.
It is worthy of note that Otodo Gbame is one of the 39 claimant communities that had commenced action to enforce their fundamental rights pursuant to Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009 before Justice Onigbanjo. J at the High Court of Lagos State in Suit No. LD/4232MFHR/2016..AKAKPO and 38 ORS vs. AG L/S and 3 ORS.
From Otodo Gbame to Ogogoro Village: Open wound refusing to heal
Months after the destruction of Otodo Gbame, residents are finding it hard to sustain themselves and their families especially with the fact that most of them are fishermen, who derive their daily sustenance from fishing.
According to Tina, the displaced residents who are now struggling to make ends meet are now scattered around 16 different communities across Lagos such as Badore, Ijoyi, Ofin, Oreta, Ogogoro village, Oko Agbon, Makoko, Sogunro, Ago-Igun Bariga, Sawopoju, Sangotedo, Ikorodu, Idi Mangoro, Ijede, Igbologun, and Tomaro.
“Life after the destruction of Otodo Gbame has been tough especially with kids who have to contend with environmental change. I went visiting Ogogoro village where some of the displaced residents of Otodo Gbame have relocated to and some of the kids there are sick due to change of environment. Some adults in Sawopoju, another community where displaced residents migrated to are also sick due to the same reason.
“The occupation of the people is also threatened as the major occupation of residents of Otodo Gbame is fishing, and as we speak some parents are finding it hard to take care of their kids as they are now idle because they can’t go fishing any longer to cater for their families,” she said.
The gap-toothed student of Eko Beauty Institute says she cannot continue with her education too as her books and other school materials were destroyed during the demolition and she also misses her parents who now both reside in two different communities.
“I am also hugely affected because I am no longer with my parents who are both now living in different places, my mother is at Ogogoro village, my dad is putting up at Awopeju community, while I am stuck here at Sogunro and cannot continue with my education.
“My parents are jobless for the time being, my father is a fisherman and my mum sells fish and ever since the demolition of Otodo Gbame, they have stopped working and fending for the family. My family’s personal belongings including my text books were burnt to ashes during the destruction of our community.
“I have no hope for the future of my family and even myself at the moment considering what has been lost due to the destruction, but I want the Lagos State Government to know that, even though our homes and property have been destroyed our destiny still remains intact.
She said the government of Lagos is insensitive to the plight of displaced residents of OtodoGbame especially with the fact that no alternative option was provided to over 4,000 residents who have now been banished across Lagos.
“I think it behoves on a responsible government to provide alternative options where our people can live after destroying such a huge community like Otodo Gbame. Instead of improving our situation, they are making it worse. The Lagos State Government should look into our plight; it is not fair on the part of government as there was no notice on the day of destruction and no promise of relocating people whose homes were destroyed,” Tina added.
Oko Agbon: Living dangerously on boats
The decrepit living conditions of some of the displaced persons of Otodo Gbame who settled in a Lagos suburb known as Oko Agbon leaves much to be desired especially with the unhealthy nature and conditions of the environment they now live in.
Some of the displaced residents of Otodo Gbame who earlier relocated to Oko Agbon were able to get places to squat while a large number of them who arrived the community later on, live and fend for themselves on a daily basis on boats in the canal.
A shocking sight was pictured showing kids playing on a boat while another had kids sleeping in make-shift space on a canoe which had one of its ends covered with planks and a mosquito treated net to protect the kids from mosquito bites.
Another showed an elderly woman preparing an evening meal for her family on a boat with smoke billowing from the fire she made to prepare the meal which she was ready to serve her kinfolk.
The sight of the displaced residents of Otodo Gbame living at Oko Agbon showed that the government had failed to protect the fundamental rights of the displaced citizens and ignored its responsibilities of ensure the welfare and safety of the people.
‘Our people have been here since 1892, Lagos govt can’t wish us away’
According to 42-year-old Pascal Tosinhu, a community leader in Otodo Gbame, the community located at the back end of the highbrow Lekki area of Lagos has been in existence since the year 1892. Tosinhu, who is reputed to be the first to have started the business of supplying treated borehole-water to Otodo Gbame community, his fore fathers set foot and settled in the area in the late 18th century.
“Our fore-fathers settled in Otodo Gbame in 1892; my father, grand-parents and great-grand-parents were all born in Otodo Gbame. I and my younger siblings were born in Otodo Gbameand we were all trained in the art of fishing as our parents do not believe in formal education. We lived a contented life of fishing and after the day’s job we settled down to have fun with our families.
“While we were growing up, we were more concerned with our fishing nets, our boats and the amount of fish we are able to catch on a daily basis”, he offered.
“I have fond memories growing up and living in Otodo Gbame; it was a comfortable settlement for me and my family, it was neat and spacious as community members always ensured that the environment was kept clean. Its proximity to the sea is also one of the reasons I have fond memories of the place as I could engage in my fishing profession,” he added.
“Speaking as an elder of Otodo Gbame, I still don’t know what we have done to the government of Lagos State to deserve this kind of treatment. I recall that everyone of voting age did the needful by voting this government into power at the last general elections and it is unfortunate that we are being paid back this way. We have been here for a very long time and past governments have not been this unfair to us. We want the Lagos State Government to tell us what we have done to deserve this kind of treatment,” he said.
‘Elegushi family are strangers but they want to seize our land’
Pascal who used to go as far as Makoko and Yaba to fill water tanks with three other men who were also involved in the business of supplying fresh water to the community which lacks potable water said the Elegushi family, in connivance with the Lagos State government, have no regards for inhabitants who have been displaced. He also claims that reports that residents were offered money to vacate Otodo Gbame which they refused are untrue.
“The claims that Otodo Gbame had been sold to someone who in turn allegedly offered us money which we reportedly refused are untrue. It’s all lies; the claims that Otodo Gbameharbours militants and other criminals are also untrue. The government should make their findings, or confirm from people within Lekki if criminals were actually being harboured in our community.
“We were never offered money to vacate our community and as a matter of fact, if you trace the history, the Elegushi family are visitors as they met the original occupants of OtodoGbame, which happens to be our fore fathers years back when they settled in the community. But because of the fact that they are smart people, they connived with the government to land-grab our community by destroying it despite a court injunction.
“The destruction of Otodo Gbame is painful; I lost a lot of property including documents, clothes and money. My boat engines and water tanks are all gone too; as I speak to you, I am indebted to the tune of thousands of naira for daily contribution put in my care which were burnt to ashes on the day Otodo Gbame was burnt and demolished,” he stated.
‘We will not let Otodo Gbame go without a fight’
However, Pascal has a message of hope for his fellow displaced residents of Otodo Gbame as he believes that the community will be reclaimed if they continue to pile pressure on the Lagos State Government concerning their plight.
“I have a message for the Lagos State Government; they have to take us back to our land. We were all born in that community and we have nowhere to go. Most displaced residents of Otodo Gbame who are scattered in about sixteen communities have nowhere to go. As we speak, some of them live with their families on boats. I have hope that we will return to Otodo Gbame and I want all displaced residents to believe that we will return to our home one day,” Pascal said.
Among the few who have fought on the side of the displaced Otodo Gbame residents, is Megan Chapman, Co-Director at Justice and Empowerment Initiatives. She used to reside in Lagos but has relocated to a yet to be determined location.
Unconfirmed reports from sources within the Otodo Gbame community say she left the country owing to death threats she received for bringing the plight of residents of the waterfront community to the notice of the international media.
Efforts to reach her via a contact phone number, and email address sourced were unsuccessful. But the Otodo Gbame former residents are still hopeful that their plight will be attended to, and they would get reprieve from a government that has flexed its muscles over them, without care for their welfare or safety.
Story written by Ahmed Boulor…
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